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Review: Con is on with 'The Swindle'

Web posted on: Wednesday, January 20, 1999 11:02:49 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- French director Claude Chabrol's "The Swindle" is a welcome respite from the usual American version of a scam movie, but it never generates enough steam to make me feel like it's anything more than a respite.

This isn't really fair to this recently re-released French film, but the movie it most resembles is "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," in which a couple of con men pull a fast one on an unsuspecting victim, but soon come to find that they were the ones being conned all along.

The legendary Chabrol, of course, is a vastly more talented filmmaker than a commercial hack like Frank Oz. He approaches the material (in a manner that may leave many MTV-jazzed Americans scratching their heads) via the characteristics of the French New Wave, the groundbreaking film movement of which he's a charter member.

"The Swindle" is a comedy, and I found it slightly amusing, but don't worry about dirtying your jacket as you roll on the floor in hysterics. Isabelle Huppert (who's getting more beautiful as she ages) plays Betty, a small-time con artist who works in tandem with a much older man named Victor (Michel Serrault).

Movie runs course in true New Wave fashion

In true New Wave fashion, Chabrol plays with the audience's perceptions of these prototype characters by never fully establishing whether they're lovers, just friends, or father and daughter. I was leaning towards the family attachment, but Huppert's eyes occasionally flash at Serrault in a manner that suggests otherwise. Regardless, they both seem to be having a laid-back good time.

Their basic m.o. is for Huppert to seduce some poor shmuck businessman (the first sequence in the film outlines the procedure in way too much detail), slip a Mickey into his drink, then lure him to his hotel room where he passes out. Then Serrault shows up to rummage around and write a hefty check to himself (made out to a false organization) courtesy of the victim's bank account.

They always leave a little bit of money in the account, so that it'll be a while before anyone can realize that a crime has been committed. It's not exactly "The Sting" as far as crime complexity goes. The duo's offenses are presented as slightly harmful larks, so it's easy for both of them to remain likable in the eyes of the audience.

Eventually, Betty (in a change from their usual approach) comes up with a scheme of her own. She's met a handsome executive (Francois Cluzet, who some people may know from the great jazz movie "'Round Midnight"), and, not surprisingly, he's fallen in love with her. She doesn't love him back, but she's very concerned with a metal briefcase that he handcuffs to his wrist as he transports money back and forth between business associates.

Soon, she's back in cahoots with Victor as the two of them devise a couple of doublecrosses that will leave them with the money, and (though they don't foresee it) the businessman with a huge spike driven through his eye.

It turns out that the guy has some pretty nasty connections, and those connections want the money back. So now Betty and Victor are in over their heads ... or, maybe not. There are several doublecrosses going on, so you never really know who's going to end up with the cash.

If all of that sounds rather mundane, well, it is. The dialogue is nice and airy, and Chabrol's camera work is steady as always, but I really didn't care all that much. The only really memorable scene is when the pair get caught by the bad bad guys and are interrogated at length as an opera blares on a nearby stereo. It's a bizarre little joke, as more and more dreadful revelations are accompanied by a soaring aria.

That's really about it, though. I'm always happy to see a movie that respects your ability to sit still and listen for a little while, but I do require that what I'm listening to is of something more than passing interest. This is a piece of fluff that dissolves like a sugar cube as you watch it. Chabrol's not conning the audience, just selling them an exceedingly simple product.

"The Swindle" is pretty light in tone. The only disturbing image is of the murdered businessman. Victor also gets a finger snapped by one of the henchman, but it's not all that graphic. How do you yawn in French? Not Rated. 105 minutes.

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